This week I decided to take a break from reading Dickens to read a little bit more about Nicholas Nickleby and to prepare for my next adventure (but more on that later). When I am reading something like Dickens, what some would call “the Classics,” I like to read more about the text in general and I definitely will read an Introduction (if my edition has one) because I like to get a sense of the time period and of the author’s concerns when writing the novel.
This is one of the reasons I am reading Norrie Epstein’s The Friendly Dickens as I read the novels. She dedicates a short section to each novel so I like to read them after I am finished so as not to get any spoilers (although most major plot points of Dickens’s novels are known!) or to focus my reading. These are also the reasons why I read the Introduction to the text after reading the novel.
In his Introduction to the 2008 Penguin Edition of Nicholas Nickleby, which is the one I read, Mark Ford discusses Dickens’s criticism of “Yorkshire Schools,” compares the novel to 18th-century picaresque novels (which was really interesting), and addressed the issue of class. This last sort of theme or topic stood out to me as I was reading Nickleby (and, I could argue, it’s predominant of any Dickens work), but I didn’t pay as much attention to it as I had done in his previous novels.
Epstein also talks about this issue in her discussion of the novel and having both points of view really made me think back to what I read and was struck at how I just couldn’t see how relevant class difference was so important in the text. Like I said, maybe I’ve come to expect it so much of a Dickens novel that I just wasn’t paying so much attention!
For starters, Nicholas’s journey is solely based on his desire to return to his original social status, which he does achieve by the end of the novel when he is even able to purchase his childhood home. In the general sense, Nicholas is no different than say Pip from Great Expectations, but it does show you how much Dickens improved as an author that Pip’s journey is far more powerful because you cannot really see how it is going to end while I don’t think you are truly worried about Nicholas.
Furthermore, we have Mrs. Nickleby who is always looking back to what she owned and to her friends (she is just so silly sometimes I forget to take her seriously!) and, of course, poor Smike! His sickness is not really showing of poor conditions in London since he is not living as uncomfortably as another of Dickens’s children (like say Jo in Bleak House or Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, for example) but it is actually the fact that he is not of a noble social status enough to being able to marry Kate Nickleby what kills him!
Once you begin analyzing, you can find many examples of class difference and the desire for upward mobility, which was a concern of many Dickensian characters. There are the Kenwigses and the Wittiterlys, of course, but also the Squeers. When you look closely at the way Fanny Squeers treats the Browdies, you can see how she believes herself to be of higher status than them, of anyone really.
What I found interesting was that Ralph Nickleby was uninterested in class. I mean, he dealt with people of high society, such as Lord Verisoph and Sir Mulberry Hawk, but he didn’t quite want to belong to it, he was just content with having money. It’s probably what makes his character so devious.
One final note on Nicholas Nickleby and I’ll move on:
I loved reading about how Dickens actually made a difference with his novel. He actually did travel with his illustrator to Yorkshire and made his research about Yorkshire schools (he was a reporter before becoming a novelist so I am sure that curiosity for finding the truth never went away) and he uncovered a lot of horrible things. After the publication of Nickleby, the number of Yorkshire schools dropped! People actually read his novels and cared. I find that to be so amazing and I do not know if there is something that happens like this today.
Thank you for coming with me on my journey through Nicholas Nickleby! I really hope you stick around for my next adventure in Dickens’s world.
May we meet again!